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Advancing Industry

Innovations in wine and vine  

By Mark Stock

In an industry so often associated with dank cellars, dusty bottles and traditionalism, it’s easy to forget a great deal of innovation exists. For better or worse, romantic sketches of an age-old, agricultural trade tend to overshadow technological breakthroughs and general advancements.

Over the last decade, a fair amount of progress has been made, from more sophisticated harvesting machinery to DNA plating in wine labs helping combat microbiological issues. As with most sectors, mechanization accounts for a prominent theme, as does general creativity. And because wine is so seasonal and, in turn, so hectic during certain stretches, utility is always prized.

At Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, the crew just finished installing its new gray water system. As much a stewardship move as an innovative one, the transition will significantly soften its environmental impact. Going above and beyond DEQ code, the winery will use significantly less water, filter out solids for compost use and return the treated waste water back to resident soils.

Anybody who’s every worked a harvest knows that water use is high. Tanks constantly need to be cleaned, barrels swelled and re-swelled and equipment soaked or rinsed. More aggressive water management plans will only aid the sustainability of the trade going forward, especially in this increasingly drier climate.

Sokol Blosser Winery is experimenting with a new innovative closure from French company DIAM. The Dayton brand used Origine on 700 cases of its 2015 Pinot Noir. Made of cork, beeswax, emulsion and vegetable polyols, the product claims to offer comparable permeability to traditional cork while supporting declining bee populations. One dollar of every Sokol Blosser wine sold with this closure supports Eugene-based Save the Bee research and advocacy group.

Nationally, the Wine Industry Network honors creative and innovative developments each year via its WINnovation Awards. Last year, five companies were honored for their contributions to the industry. Game-changing creations ranged from mechanical grape sorters that distinguish according to Brix levels (sugar density) to a gadget analyzing oxygen demands in white wine and rosé musts (freshly crushed wine grapes containing juice, skins, seeds and stems).

The awards stretched beyond equipment upgrades to new means of distributing wine and interpreting weather. California outfit Liberation Distribution (LibDib) was awarded for its wholesale web and mobile platform looking to simplify compliance and utilize data to better pair brands with retailers. Tule Technologies was also named a 2017 winner thanks to its irrigation analytics and corresponding treatment options, which offers hydro-efficiency in a supremely drought-stricken region.

Discussion of new-fangled mechanical harvesters has risen from cautious whispers to general chatter as of late. Many of Oregon’s steep slopes of notoriously vulnerable Pinot Noir rows continue to be hand-harvested, but the trend elsewhere is significant. Newer models can process upwards of two acres per hour, be controlled remotely and often include de-stemmers and, in some cases, so-called berry cleaning systems. Eerie vineyard scenes filled with these towering robots — seemingly pulled straight from a War of the Worlds chapter — may be distant fantasy for the Oregon scene, but the movement is worth noting, especially in flatter sites with a certain economy of scale.

Back in the cellar, winemakers have turned to reverse osmosis to address certain vinification issues. A heightened means of filtration, the process can adjust alcohol content, take on reduction and volatile acidity, and concentrate wines diluted by rainwater. Reverse osmosis is still largely being explored and fine-tuned in its winemaking capacity.

A significant amount of research is underway in the heart of the Willamette Valley, at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Mark Chien, the program coordinator for the school’s viticultural studies, the Oregon Wine Research Institute, boasts serious hands-on experience: He managed Temperance Hill Vineyard, an esteemed site in the Eola-Amity Hills, for nearly two decades.

He says of the state’s readiness to innovate, “Oregon is more tradition-bound than Washington or California.” But that’s not to say headway isn’t being made within our borders. In fact, it’s much the opposite — just underreported. For instance, Laurent Deluc, associate professor at OSU, is working to improve vine health and quality via genetic editing. “Not in the sense of Monsanto or Roundup Ready-to-Use,” Chien clarifies. “But in terms of identifying genetic markers.” He cites gene-editing technologies like CRISPR to help create extremely resistant varieties, ones that could be engineered to erase worry concerning disease or powdery mildew.

Of course, convincing the public that such micro-tweaking is for the greater good of the industry and not the rise of Frankenwine is its own challenge. The labeling process alone, Chien thinks, would be a real obstacle. Yet, in terms of engineering vineyards that rely less on harmful inputs like pesticides or limited resources in general, this kind of mapping becomes all the more important. “We can’t afford to not do this research,” he adds.

Down in Roseburg at the Southern Oregon Wine Institute, Andy Swan is constantly sniffing around for new and highly capable equipment he can use for educational purposes. The institute’s dnterim director looks after a couple acres of vines, a fully operational winery and scores of eager, wine-minded students.

“We look to get the best equipment we can to train our students with,” Swan says. That list includes machinery such as mechanical vine-trimmers and leaf-pullers in the vineyard and ultraviolet sanitation devices and optical sorters in the cellar. The sorter is particularly remarkable, employing high speed cameras to scan fruit and push out any unwanted debris or lesser clusters. It is sophisticated enough to sort by color, size, shape and other parameters, perhaps to a fault.

“It’s sort of a double-edged sword,” Swan says when asked about the sorter’s accuracy level. “You almost end up with too much clean fruit.” He believes there are currently only a few of its kind in Oregon. Swan has been in the industry since the ’80s and contends the equipment at SOWI is the best he’s ever used.

Columnist, teacher and general wine personality Clark Smith is paying more and more attention to advancements in the wine lab. The author of outstanding enological read “Postmodern Winemaking” is tracking the use of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technology to analyze the microbial makeup of wines. It’s a forensic DNA approach not unlike what’s been glorified on television series recently.

“Wine microbiology has been turned on its head in the last five years,” Smith says. “Before that, over 90 percent of wine organisms had never been plated and we had no way to dissect yeast strains, only species. Before DNA fingerprinting, the answer to ‘Whodunnit?’ was some human, most likely.”

Winemakers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the microbiomes existing in their cellars, too, such as specific spots where brettanomyces (brett) is most likely to occur. With better equipment to track what’s invisible to the naked eye, vintners can stay on top of potential outbreaks or eradicate micro-pests. This kind of microbial work, especially, is very much under construction and will no doubt see significant breakthroughs in the not-too-distant future.

Part of advancement involves adaptation and that’s where climate change will play a significant role going forward. Vineyard approaches, ranging from vineyard row spacing to the very plant itself, will have to consider rising temperatures and the associated hang-ups — namely extreme drought and longer, more intense wildfire seasons.

Many of these innovative moves are witnessed only by industry types, displayed at trade shows or experimented with by curious winemaking crews during harvest. It’s a quiet but powerful engine that helps power an Oregon wine industry showing no signs of slowing down.

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